Sunday, November 26, 2017

A Sacramental Perspective on Matthew 25:31-46

So as not to go 0 for 2017 in blog posts, I thought I would interrupt the silence and post this morning's sermon, since it is a good barometer of where I am theologically and spiritually these days.

Christ the King Sunday Year A Matthew 25:31-46

You’re going to figure this out soon enough, but the word of the day for this sermon is "perspective", meaning the where and the how we view things, our point of view, or our vantage point.  We just heard Jesus talk about sheep and goats, but let me use cats and dogs to illustrate a point about the importance of recognizing the perspective from which we view the world around us.

Dogs, like the ones on our family farm I visited over the Thanksgiving holiday, look up at you with those big brown eyes, wagging their tail, as if they are thinking to themself: “You love me, you feed me, you care for me, you take me for walks... you must be God”. Cats, on the other hand, like our dear Mellow whom we adopted from the shelter last year, look at you with those piercing eyes, thinking to themself:  “You love me, you feed me, you care for me, you pet me ... I must be God”. (Joke adapted from a sermon by Steven Sizer: Recognizing our perspective – the vantage point from which we look at the things around us - matters.

Today is Christ the King Sunday – the last day of the church year, before we begin a new church year with the season of Advent next week. A day that we can take a step back and look at the world from a new perspective.  A perspective which reveals to us how Christ the King is a very, very different kind of king. A perspective which shows us how Christ is a king whose crown is thorns, not jewels, A perspective which shows us that his king’s throne is a cross, not made of gold. 

A perspective revealed to us through today’s Gospel from Matthew.  A perspective which reveals how Christ is with us today.  A perspective that shows us how Christ the King comes to us today - not through all kinds of royal pageantry, but through those whom Jesus calls the least of these who are members of my family. The hungry.  The thirsty. The stranger. The naked.  The sick.  The imprisoned.

This parable, sometimes called the judgment of the nations, or perhaps more simply, the parable of the sheep at the goats, is found at the end of the 25th chapter of Matthew, the chapter we’ve been going through these past few weeks where Jesus has told a series of parables about being prepared for the day when he would return.  In the very next chapter, chapter 26, Jesus had the last supper with the disciples.  He was betrayed and arrested. He was put on trial before the high priest, then in the 27th chapter, brought before Pilate, and taken to the cross.

Today’s parable of the judgment of the nations, using the sheep and the goats as metaphors for the righteous and unrighteous, was the last parable he told before those events we remember during Holy Week.

There are probably several different perspectives from which we can look at this parable of the sheep and the goats, but I’m going to talk about three. 

One possible perspective would be to look at this parable from what I’ll call the “legal perspective” the perspective that Jesus is offering us a contract for our salvation, with a list of conditions. What kind of list?  Well, because the Christmas shopping season has begun, pardon me for bringing up Santa, but a list of things we can do to be put on the nice list, the sheep list - and not the naughty list, the goat list. Let’s see – feed a hungry person? Check.  Give a drink to a thirsty person? Check. Give clothing to a naked person? Check.  Welcome the stranger? Check. Took care of someone who is sick? Check.  Visit someone in prison? Check.  Okay Jesus, I’ve done all of those things – now fulfill your end of the deal and tell me I’m a sheep.   

Another possible perspective is what I’ll call the “save the world” perspective. What I mean by that is that from this perspective, we think that Jesus is telling us how to go out there and make his kingdom a reality here on earth in our time, and we do that by doing all kinds of great and noble and just things for other people. 

Things like feeding the hungry, giving a drink to the thirsty, etc. – I won’t mention the whole list again.  Jesus told us about the kingdom of heaven, so let’s get going on bringing it to earth by doing all these things - time’s a wasting.

The problem with those perspectives is that they are from the vantage point of what we are doing.  We need to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and take care of the sick to fulfill our end of the legal bargain, or we need to do these things to save the world and make the kingdom of heaven a reality here on earth by doing them.

I’m going to propose to you a different perspective – what I am going to call a sacramental perspective.  As Episcopalians/Lutherans, along with other Christian traditions which believe that God’s grace comes to us through the sacraments like baptism or communion, believe that ordinary things or objects can bring the holy to us.  They can bring Christ himself to us.  The water of baptism bring Christ to us and unite us with him in his death and resurrection.  The bread and wine bring Christ to us as they carry his body and blood for forgiveness of sin and nourishment of our souls.

In other words, the sacramental perspective reveals to us that the material world – what we can see, taste, touch, is not all there is that is material to us for our salvation – our unity with God.  Through this parable, Jesus is reminding us that each encounter with the people that we meet has the potential to be an encounter with himself.  What may seem like an ordinary event, can be a Christ event.

The week before last, I stayed several days at New Melleray Abbey, the monastery over Dubuque that I go to periodically. The monks there follow the ancient Rule of St. Benedict as the guide for their lives, and the Rule of St. Benedict recognizes how Christ comes to us through others.  One part of the Rule specifically quotes Matthew 25, when it states that “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: ‘I was a stranger, and you welcomed me”. 

In other words, an act of hospitality, welcoming a stranger, is a sacramental event – an encounter with Jesus. A means by which Jesus Christ - the King of this very different kind of kingdom - comes to us.

A sacramental perspective reminds us that Christ’s presence in the world is not merely a past event, or a future event on the day when Christ returns.  Christ’s presence is a current event.  The face of Christ is reflected to us through the face of the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the stranger, the imprisoned.  We are all pilgrims on the journey, and Christ visits us through the journey of others. (Adapted from a writing by Fr. Prior Joel Macul on the 20th anniversary of Christ the King Priory.
A sacramental perspective affects our mindset when we go about doing the things that Jesus spoke of, like feeding the hungry.  These aren’t just acts of charity from someone who has something, to someone who does not have something. We aren’t the kings of our little kingdoms being benevolent and merciful to those whom we provide assistance.

We are receiving far more than what we are giving because the presence of Christ the King himself is with them, whether we recognize it or not.   One of the beautiful things about this parable is how the people who were sheep and not goats did all of these things without even realizing it was the Son of Man who was with the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, stranger, and imprisoned.

So, a sacramental perspective is not required to be a sheep and not a goat, but it does open our eyes to a new way of looking at why we do the acts of love that we do as Christians. It is a perspective that comes when, as Ephesians so beautifully puts it, the eyes of your heart are enlightened. 

The eyes of your heart.  Not the eyes in your head.  The eyes in the core of your being – the core where the Holy Spirit dwells in you because of the sacrament of baptism, the core which is nourished and fed because of the sacrament of communion.

A sacramental perspective opens the eyes of our heart to see God’s grace incarnate in water, in bread and wine.  It allows us to see the presence of Christ in the least of these. It allows us to see that the presence of the resurrected and living Christ is not merely a thing of the past or future, but a living presence right here, right now, with us.  Immanuel.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

1 comment:

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